A few friends, insiders in “those” lines of work that shape our institutional and social environments, have just crystalized something that I suspect is lurking in many minds. “We’re not talking,” they say – about whether ‘my’ profession is growing obsolete, about the state of America’s infrastructure, about fears that the social order is disintegrating (ditto for the economy and for the Liberal world). We may be on the edge of an all-engulfing abyss, of crime, poverty, illness, ignorance, immorality, natural disaster and personal despair and are averting our eyes — or it may be that we are weathering some deep but passing stresses, and could emerge re-energized. We don’t know, we fear the worst, and for some reason we don’t address the problems.
This is an impression but now I know, not an isolated one, borne out by everything from partisan politics to crime reaching closer to or deeper into our homes, to shortages in American stores, to depletion of military supplies without replenishment, to defunded police and denied elections. We will argue or protest or litigate anything, but public discourse has no time for objective analysis of problems old or new, or for dispassionate reflection on the emotions that drive a large and variegated citizenry.
Why do we not talk? The operators of our systems and institutions cannot possibly have confidence in the systems they work, whether of volatile financial markets, an infrastructure of falling bridges and derailing trains and chaotic airports, schools that turn out ever-lower scores, and (it seems) everything else. Are the operators who should have a grip on these matters complacent? Do they live well enough that the problems aren’t urgent to them personally? If they are boomers, would they be hoping to slide by for a few more years and retire, rather than dig in at reform’s Augean stables? Are we paralyzed by the realization that “nightmares can come true,” as events in this 21st Century have shown us?
Logic says we need, all of us, to take a hard look at life, in everything that “I” truly know, and in honest assessments from others about the fields that they know. It may turn out that a few hundred billion dollars here, a few years of 60 hour weeks there, and some clear thinking throughout, will revive a vibrant and coherent America, ready to launch into a new age of discovery and growth, through technology and creativity. We would not want to lose that opportunity by ignoring issues and missing fixes that could enable the relaunch, out of fear for what an honest examination might reveal. If it does turn out that the conditions underpinning our freedom are indeed on the verge of collapse, we cannot afford not to address them urgently. Even if we fail in any number of efforts, not making the effort shows our free society as cowardly, which is worse than any number of particular failings.
Last, if we cannot talk because our discourse leaves no mental space to think about problems, we need to start creating that mental space to think and talk together. Our society does feel divided to the point where it often does not appear as a single society. But we have common ground – this nation was founded on tenets that we all share, even if we only cite them to argue against each other. The nation conceived itself on a creed – that all persons are equally endowed with rights that they could not give away if they wanted to, and that government exists to secure those rights, and takes its legitimacy from our consent. That creed creates a new – and still experimental – genre of nation, based on principle rather than blood and soil, which opens horizons for each and all to make our lives by our own lights.
We still face a gargantuan task of ensuring those open horizons for all. That task defines the existential mission of this first nation of natural, unalienable personal rights. It is an endemic condition of existence for a nation founded on our abstract creed. Losing that purpose and the hope of its full realization should be our greatest fear. We should be naturally excited to bend all efforts to grow into the realization and perpetuate the hope. So figuring out how bad the problems are and facing them squarely should not be frightening. The figuring must not be blocked by fear, complacency, or division.